This word is used twenty seven times in the Greek New Testament. Paul uses the term twenty one times in his writings. Our study will come from the Ephesians epistle. Five chapters of this epistle are devoted to the discussion of the church in its relation to Christ. In chapter five the apostle wrote that the husband is the head of the wife, Christ is the head of the church; and that He is the Savior of the body (v. 23). He then states that Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it (v. 25), and that He sanctified and cleansed it by the washing of water with the word (v. 26). Paul next alluded to the illustration of the primal relation of Adam to Eve (v. 31). When God presented Eve to Adam, he said to God, "this is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh" (Genesis 2:23, 24). The apostle concludes the high points of the discourse with the summation: "This mystery is great: but I speak in regard of Christ and of the church" (v. 32).
The word μυστηριον (Strong's #3466) translated mystery, in verse 32 of our text is defined by the lexicographers as, "a hidden or secret thing, not obvious to the understanding;"F1 "a secret revealed (to one initiated);"F2 "a secret revealed by God, i.e., religious or mystical truth;"F3 and "that which is known to the initiated, a mystery or secret doctrine."F4 Thus, the word literally means "a sacred secret, oath, or doctrine, which the initiate knows but no one else." Our English word mystery is a transliteration of the Greek word musterion. The term mystery does not mean something mysterious, or something that one could not understand; it means something that one could not know until it is revealed. The term was originally used of the sacred oaths of the Roman military recited by the initiated recruitsF5, who once they declaimed the oath, then was made known to them the hidden military scheme, strategy or plan of the generals of the army. The generals of the army did not reveal their military strategy to the enemy nor did the General of the Army reveal the military mystery or secret doctrine to his initiated troops until the time came for them to execute it; then the strategy was revealed to his chosen officers to carry out the plan. The fundamental meaning of the word therefore has to do with information known only to those on the inside, but hidden to those who are without (Mark 4:11). It refers to information which has been kept secret, veiled (Romans 16:25,26). Thayer states, "In the New Testament, μυστηριον, refers to God's plan of providing salvation for men through Christ, which was once hidden but is now revealed."F6 Meyer adds, "μυστηριον, signifies that which, undiscerned by men themselves, has been made known to them by divine revelation, and always refers to the relations and the development of the Messianic kingdom (Matthew 13:11). Thus it frequently denotes with Paul the divine counsel of redemption through Christ, as a whole, or in particular parts of it, because it was veiled from men before God revealed it (Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7-10; Ephesians 3:3-5)."F7
Thus, in the first century New Testament, the Holy Spirit adapted the word μυστηριον, mystery to metaphorically represent God's redemptive plan of salvation, because it was kept secret, not known or revealed, until the time came for God to unveil it. The apostle Paul in our context is stating that God devised a plan to save man. His summation, "this mystery is great" (Ephesians 5:32), implies this is a great strategic plan by God, concerning Christ and the church. God is the General of the Armies of righteousness. During the Mosaic dispensation His plan was concealed in the promises, prophecies, symbolism and theophanies of that age so that they could not be discerned (Romans 16:25,26). But when the time came for God to reveal it, He sent His Son into the world, who lived on this earth according to God's divine plan until the time came for Jesus to put it into execution. Christ then selected His twelve chosen apostles; He died on the cross; He arose from the dead; and He ascended back to heaven, having given them their commitment to reveal God's divine plan to all men. To the Corinthians the apostle confirmed that the rulers of this age did not know about God's divine scheme, His "great mystery," which was hidden and foreordained before the ages, but they fell into its snare, and allowed it to be executed perfectly, when they crucified the "Lord of glory" (1 Corthians 2:7,8). Paul reminds the Corinthians that during the Old Testament God's mystery was in the state of preparation (1 Corinthians 2:9) but adds it was revealed through the Spirit to the apostles (1 Corinthians 2:10).
Thus, when the time came to reveal God's mystery, His sacred secret, His great plan of salvation, He assigned the function of revelation to the Holy Spirit. God is the primitive cause of man's salvation; He willed it. Jesus, the Christ, is the sacrificial cause of man's salvation; He purchased it with His blood; and the Holy Spirit is the revealing cause of salvation. The gospel of Christ is the instrumental cause of salvation, hence the command, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15); and "For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation" (Romans 1:16). Faith then is the appropriating cause of salvation, for "we have had our access by faith into this grace" (Romans 5:2); and "as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name" (John 1:12). Finally, baptism is the consummating cause of salvation, for "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16). In the act of baptism: we call upon the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16; Romans 10:13); are made disciples (Matt. 28: 19); are pardoned and receive remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11); are put into Christ (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27); have put to death the old man of sin and are resurrected a new man in Christ where we are united with Him (Romans 6:5-7); and are made alive with Christ with our trespasses forgiven (Colossians 2:12,13). Therefore, baptism is the consummating act where salvation is granted to the recipient (Mark 16:16; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21) because of their obedience of faith (John 3:36; Romans 16:26). In the New Testament, where faith, repentance, baptism, and salvation are mentioned together, salvation is always last in the order. Salvation is never put between faith and baptism when they are mentioned together, or between repentance and baptism when they are mentioned together, or before baptism when it is mentioned with salvation. Always the order when mentioned together is faith, repentance, baptism, salvation or remission of sins; when faith is not specifically mentioned, the order is repentance, baptism, salvation; when neither faith nor repentance is mentioned, only baptism in connection with salvation, salvation is always last in the order, and baptism is put as the consummating cause of salvation. We should always remember that "the sum of thy word is truth; And every one of thy righteous ordinances endureth forever" (Psalm 119:160).
Just prior to Paul referring to the "great mystery" at the conclusion of his discussion of the church and its relation to Christ in the Ephesians epistle, he states that "Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for it; that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word" (Ephesians 5:25,26). Meyer states, "In His sacrificial death, namely, Christ's intention with regard to His future church had this aim that, after having by baptism brought about for its members the forgiveness of their pre-Christian sins, He would make it partaker of Christian-moral holiness by means of the gospel. That cleansing is the negative side of that, which Christ contemplated with regard to His church in His death, and this sanctification by means of the gospel constantly influencing the baptized is the positive side; the former the 'antecedent,' the latter the 'consequent;' and both are caused by the atoning death, which is the 'meritorious cause,' of the forgiveness of sins brought about by means of baptism, and the contents of the gospel as the word of the cross. The sanctifying influence of the latter is the efficacy of the Holy Spirit, who works by means of the gospel (Ephesians 6:17); but the Holy Spirit is subject to Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18), and Christ also communicates Himself in the Spirit to men's hearts (Romans 8:9-17); hence it is said with justice that Christ sanctifies the church through the word, in which case it is self-evident to the Christian consciousness that the operative principle therein is the Spirit operating by means of the word."F8 Therefore, from our study of Ephesians chapter five, we can conclude that the scheme of redemption is the "great mystery" to which the apostle Paul alludes. It was God's sacred secret, revealed by Jesus and the Holy Spirit to the initiated chosen apostles, so that all who wish to be reconciled back to God can hear the gospel and learn of God's divine plan of salvation (Romans 10:17).
F1: Joseph Henry Thayer, D.D., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: American Book Company, 1889), pg, 420.
F2: Robert Young, LL.D., F.E.S.L., Dictionary of Bible Words & Synonyms (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1883), pg. 70.
F3: Henry George Liddell, M.A. and Robert Scott, M.A., Greek-English Lexicon, New Edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, reprinted 1989), pg. 1156.
F4: G. Abbot-Smith, D.D, D.C.L., LL.D., A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1936), pg. 298.
F5: Henry George Liddell, M.A. and Robert Scott, M.A., Greek-English Lexicon, New Edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, reprinted 1989), pg. 1156.
F6: Joseph Henry Thayer, D.D., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: American Book Company, 1889), pg, 420.
F7: Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, TH.D., Critical and Exegetical Handbook To The Epistle To The Romans, vol. 5 (Peabody, Massachusetts, 1983 reprint of 6th edition of 1884), pg. 446.
F8: Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, TH.D., Critical and Exegetical Handbook To The Epistle To The Ephesians, vol. 7 (Peabody, Massachusetts, 1983 reprint of 6th edition of 1884), pg. 512.
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